The path of L.K.D. Jennings’s Mark of the Conifer to publication is almost as epic as the dinosaur saga itself. After an unsuccessful initial Kickstarter campaign in 2016, she retooled it and successfully funded the book in early 2017. Fully illustrated in color, it promised to be a handsome volume. Unfortunately, the printer she picked proved to be less than reliable, and delay followed delay, ultimately ending with her having to sue the printer for breach of contract. A year after the Kickstarter ended the EBook was finally released, with the hardcopy following some months later. Because I was a backer for only the EBook (I was really broke at the time), I have no clue how the final printed version came out, but expect it looked awesome.
Readers can be thankful that the author was so persistent in bringing this book out, because it is a first-rate tale. If Baker’s Raptor Red set the bar for naturalistic dinosaur fiction, then Mark of the Conifer sets the standard for dinosaur fantasy. Any book featuring talking animals is invariably compared to Watership Down, but a more accurate comparison would be to Tailchaser’s Song. I can’t say exactly why without some spoilers, but it will be clear to anyone who’s read both that Jenning’s dinosaurs have more in common with Tad Williams’s cats than Adams’s rabbits.
The protagonist is Sunstrike, a “droemar” (raptor). Hatched during a solar eclipse, Sunstrike has the mark of a sacred conifer cone on his chest. Clearly destined for great things! From the beginning, he’s taught the legends of his people; stories of the goddess Sol and her creations, the dinosaurs and dragon kings. The central tale borrows heavily from Meso-American mythology, with Sol requiring a blood sacrifice in order to renew her strength each day. Both hunters and their prey follow ‘The Pact,’ where injured or old herbivores offer themselves to hunters in return for a quick and painless death, their shed blood enabling Sol to rise each morning.
Despite some early traumas-- including skirmishes with the lowest dinosaurs, Pact-rejectors contemptuously called ‘Ornis’-- Sunstrike’s childhood (chickhood?)passes normally. That all changes when his clan’s territory is invaded by the tyrannosaur Cheharraphix and her followers. Deliberately rejecting the Pact, they kill any Pact-following hunters and enslave the herbivores. Aided by her brother Sarkanj, who has discovered the secret of controlling fire, Cheharraphix carves a bloody swath through the land, seeking to wipe out all of Sol’s followers.
After his family is added to Cheharraphix’s toll, Sunstrike gradually acquires an odd assortment of friends and followers who have also suffered at her claws. This includes Leaf, a young sauropod (long-necked) dinosaur, a couple of armored anklyosaurs, and a small horned dinosaur that leads the resistance against Cheharraphix. The rest of the story is the standard Hero’s Journey, as Sunstrike learns lessons, has battles, finds friends and foes, and suffers self-doubt. But really, even if the story arc is familiar, the fun is in getting there, and exploring the world of the dinosaurs.
The two nitpicks I have with the book are technical. The EBook I read was badly formatted, with no paragraph or dialogue indentations, which made it difficult to follow who was saying what. I don’t know if that issue has since been ironed out, or if it was a problem with my particular tablet (a Kindle Paperwhite.) Because I have a dinky black-and-white reader, I didn’t get the full effect of the illustrations, but what I could see looked great.
The second issue was the author referring to the dinosaur’s feet and hands as ‘paws.’ To me paws = mammal foot with pads. Call them claws, talons, feet, or something completely made-up, but every time I read ‘paws’ I cringed a little. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was an extremely odd detail.
Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed the book, and enjoyed it again when I reread it for this review. I’ll add that it does help to have a good working knowledge of types of dinosaurs so you can better picture the characters, but it’s not a prerequisite. Mark of the Conifer is highly recommended to anyone who loves a good adventure saga, animal POV books, or dinosaurs. This book has all three locked in its paws—talons!